Peak Travel

Paul Raven @ 05-01-2011

Trends suggest that the demand for transit is flattening out in the industrialized West. Ars Technica:

… prior to recent years, two forms of transit have driven most of the growth in miles travelled, and thus energy use: air and car travel. And, although air travel has continued to increase, car travel has started to decline (a trend that predates the oil price shock of recent years). As a result, since 2003, total miles travelled have flattened out and has started to decline in some countries. This flattening out is even more apparent when graphed against per-capita GDP. Here, most countries show a flattening out once they hit a per-capita GDP of $25,000 (in the US, the figure is $35,000, while Sweden shows a continuing rise).

There are lots of individual features hidden within these general trends. For example, the US drop in the energy intensity of car travel stalled once milage standards languished in the 1990s. In contrast, European countries started raising their gasoline taxes around the same time, and experienced the opposite trend. Longer flights are also less energy intensive, which means that domestic air travel is less energy-intensive in nations like the Australia, Canada, and the US simply as a function of geography.

Nevertheless, the authors argue that the GDP-related trends, which are more consistent across countries, suggest that there might be some common factors underlying the decline in travel, such as urbanization, increased taxes, aging populations, a saturation of automobile ownership, and a basic desire not to spend any more time behind the wheel. Carpooling has also seemed to decline to the point where it probably won’t go down much further.

The folk behind the study are wisely reluctant to project into the future, though they suggest that “continued, steady growth in travel demand cannot be relied upon.”

I fully suspect that the next few weeks will see a rash of pundits suggesting that this flattening of trends means we can stop worrying about carbon emissions and climate change, to be met by a rash of counter-claims at the opposite extreme; between all the shouting, nothing of note will be achieved. Both sides can call me back when they start basing their narratives on the evidence, rather than crowbarring the evidence into their narrative. This Red vs Blue bullshit is starting to bore me.

There’s (black) gold in them there landfills… or maybe not

Paul Raven @ 15-12-2010

Well, perhaps. Via William Gibson and a fair bit of Googling (as the Flixxy page he linked isn’t exactly the sort of thing I’d take on trust): Akinori Ito is the CEO of Blest Inc., a Japanese company that sells a device for turning recyclable plastics into petrol. In fact, this story’s been around since 2009; here, OurWorld2.0 republishes it in response to a renewed interest courtesy a mildly-viral YouTube video:

Blest’s conversion technology is very safe because it uses a temperature controlling electric heater rather than flame. The machines are able to process polyethylene, polystyrene and polypropylene (numbers 2-4) but not PET bottles (number 1). The result is a crude gas that can fuel things like generators or stoves and, when refined, can even be pumped into a car, a boat or motorbike. One kilogram of plastic produces almost one liter of oil. To convert that amount takes about 1 kilowatt of electricity, which is approximately ¥20 or 20 cents’ worth.


Continually honing their technology, the company is now able to sell the machines for less than before, and Ito hopes to achieve a product “that any one can buy.” Currently the smallest version, shown in the videobrief, costs ¥950,000 (US $9,500). [Note of 30 November 2010: Blest informs us that, since we visited them last year, improvements have been made to the machine and the price is now ¥106,000 (around US$12,700) without tax.]

So far as I can tell from sitting at a keyboard, this is a real working product, though I’m rather surprised it hasn’t been bigger news. Even so, I find my cynical side wondering whether this is some sort of snake-oil gig; as pointed out in the comments in a few different places covering the story, “1kW of electricity” is a unit of power, not energy, and without knowing how long it takes to reduce that kilogram of plastic to “crude gas”, it’s difficult to get any idea of whether there’s any real gain to be had from this particular recycling process.

I rather suspect that if this process were even vaguely profitable at scale, we’d have heard a lot more about it already, and would have people knocking on our doors offering pennies for our recyclable plastics. I have no doubt the gadget works as advertised, but I’m suspicious that it would take a long long time to claw back the purchase price once you factor in the amount of electricity it consumes.

Don’t get me wrong: I want this to be everything it seems to be. I just doubt it actually is.

DIY nuclear round-up

Paul Raven @ 23-02-2010

Given the horrific costs of energy at the moment, you might be thinking about ways to cut your household bills. Maybe you could build your own nuclear reactor? [image by brndnprkns]

It’s not as crazy as it sounds. In fact, it’s so simple that a boy scout could do it, and sourcing your fuel materials is no more difficult than stumbling across them whichever scrapyard they’ve ended up in (if you can’t cut a deal with the whoever currently holds the post of Global Atomic Boogie-Man, that is). Try not to think about the waste problem, though; by the time your tiny reactor has produced enough to worry about, maybe someone will have decided whether storing it on the moon or an asteroid is the better option.

If you don’t have the spare real estate for a backyard nuclear fission reactor, I guess you’ll have to settle for a basement fusion reactor [via HackADay]. Impossible? Actually, no – though the “fusor” reactor type is considered to be effectively useless for large-scale commercial power generation.

However, the fusion reactor project proposed to the government by Research Councils UK would supposedly take only twenty years of R&D and construction before it could match the output of current commercial power stations [via NextBigFuture]… which is a long wait, sure, but an almost totally clean energy generation technology is surely worth it. All this assumes that the National Ignition Facility research continues to produce the expected results, of course; after all, fusion – much like AI – has been “just around the corner” ever since it was conceptualised.

Peak Uranium? Our nuclear future might be shorter than we thought

Paul Raven @ 18-11-2009

Billet of highly-enriched uraniumWe’ve all heard of Peak Oil (even if there’s some doubt about whether we’ve heard the truth over when it’s going to actually kick in), but there’s no need to worry – nuclear power will step in to fill the gap, right? [image courtesy Wikimedia Commons]

Well, not for long, perhaps, at least according to Dr Michael Dittmar and his new analysis of the global nuclear industry:

the most worrying problem is the misconception that uranium is plentiful. The world’s nuclear plants today eat through some 65,000 tons of uranium each year. Of this, the mining industry supplies about 40,000 tons. The rest comes from secondary sources such as civilian and military stockpiles, reprocessed fuel and re-enriched uranium. “But without access to the military stocks, the civilian western uranium stocks will be exhausted by 2013, concludes Dittmar.

It’s not clear how the shortfall can be made up since nobody seems to know where the mining industry can look for more.

That means countries that rely on uranium imports such as Japan and many western countries will face uranium shortages, possibly as soon as 2013. Far from being the secure source of energy that many governments are basing their future energy needs on, nuclear power looks decidedly rickety.

But what of new technologies such as fission breeder reactors which generate fuel and nuclear fusion? Dittmar is pessimistic about fission breeders. “Their huge construction costs, their poor safety records and their inefficient performance give little reason to believe that they will ever become commercially significant,” he says.

The upswing of Dittmar’s research is that it provides a good reason for the nuclear powers of the world to continue using their military weapons-grade stock for civilian purposes… I can’t find the link, but I read somewhere recently that something like 10% of the US energy grid is powered by decommissioned warhead material already. Swords to ploughshares, indeed.

Of course, as with any matter pertaining to energy generation these days, there are disagreements as to the validity of Dittmar’s research; a commenter at the Technology review piece linked above points to this response in the Wall Street Journal:

Worries about long-term uranium supplies surface every so often; talk of a global nuclear revival fans the flames. So what’s the score?

The International Atomic Energy Agency and Nuclear Energy Agency figure there’s enough uranium to power existing plants for 100 years. Granted, there are some supply-side issues. About 40% of current uranium supplies come from stockpiles and old weapons—not from uranium mines—so new sources need to be developed soon to avoid “uranium supply shortfalls,” they say.

Nuclear power’s growth will nearly double the world’s appetite for uranium by 2030, says the IAEA/NEA “Red Book,” but there should be enough in the ground to go around…

So, once again, the problem for a layman like myself (in the absence of access to the evidence, plus the time and expertise to do the research) is deciding whose version to believe. I rather suspect this issue will increase in visibility in the coming years, so I’m going to withhold any judgement for now… though I will note that both Peak Oil and Peak Uranium are being downplayed by those non-governmental organisations whose power and influence will wane and disappear in sympathy with the availability of the resource which they manage. Cui bono, and all that.

The perpetual aircraft carrier: turning seawater into jet fuel

Paul Raven @ 20-08-2009

aircraft carrierIf you’re getting twitchy about the uptick in petrol prices, spare a thought for the US Navy: fighter jets don’t just fuel themselves while parked on those aircraft carriers, y’know. But what if those same aircraft carriers could suck up seawater and catalyse it into aviation fuel?

Navy chemists have processed seawater into unsaturated short-chain hydrocarbons that with further refining could be made into kerosene-based jet fuel. But they will have to find a clean energy source to power the reactions if the end product is to be carbon neutral.

Nuclear-powered carrier? Sorted. So how does it work?

The process involves extracting carbon dioxide dissolved in the water and combining it with hydrogen – obtained by splitting water molecules using electricity – to make a hydrocarbon fuel.


In the conventional Fischer-Tropsch process, carbon monoxide and hydrogen are heated in the presence of a catalyst to initiate a complex chain of reactions that produce a mixture of methane, waxes and liquid fuel compounds.

Dorner and colleagues found that using the usual cobalt-based catalyst on seawater-derived CO2 produced almost entirely methane gas. Switching to an iron catalyst resulted in only 30 per cent methane being produced, with the remainder short-chain hydrocarbons that could be refined into jet fuel.

Heather Willauer, the navy chemist leading the project, says the efficiency needs to be much improved, perhaps by finding a different catalyst.

There you go – once those niggling little details are out of the way, you’ve got yourself an aircraft carrier that doesn’t need to pick up fuel for itself or its complement of aircraft, and hence doesn’t need to return to base for years (provided they can scrounge up food for the sailors and pilots in whatever theatre of operations they’re in at the time, natch).

But now imagine that it goes rogue… or someone manages to hijack it, Somali pirate style, only with no intention of ransoming it – why get rid of your own private strike-force-equipped floating nation-statelet, after all? [image by Serendigity]

Regular readers may note I’m becoming vaguely obsessed with the intersection of the oceans, geopolitics and sustainable technologies. I’m no Bruce Sterling, but I’m still confident in my assertion that plenty of weird stuff will be happening on the high seas in our not-so-distant future.

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